Apr. 17th, 2017

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Saturday saw me at Windsor. I wanted to go see if one can get into the Great Library, wanted to feel the ambience of the place. To some extent it was a ghost hunt, one of the places where Queen Elizabeth I is still seen by her royal relatives, particularly when war is imminent. Observed by George VI repeatedly in the early days of WWII, she was also spotted by Edward VIII and poor George III, the latter now a ghost himself, seen staring out of the windows beneath the library.

So much for my hopes. Windsor ambience was of a small smug town full of visitors and businesses dedicated to winkling cash out of those visitors. I arrived to see queues at least two hours long, and abandoned my intention, deciding to visit the Long Walk instead. For sure it is a fine view of the back of the castle, but I found myself frustrated with the seeming tameness of it. So out into the deer park I went, where the herds rustled back and forth, and young princes were beginning to sport fine tines. It made me think of the park's famous ghost, Herne the Hunter

(...Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner...) Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 4, Scene 4


The story goes that he saved Richard II from being gored by a white stag and was badly hurt himself, whereupon a wizard appeared and saved him; the healing spell entailed having antlers tied to his head, and meant he could hunt no more. The white stag was Richard's royal badge, thought to have been inherited from his mother, or a pun on his name, long before poor old Herne got involved, so clearly stories are blending here...Anyway, the king was grateful, but then other servants and huntsmen, jealous of the preference, fitted poor Herne up for a theft, and he was dismissed, at which point he went and hung himself from an oak in the park, haunting it forever after. Queen Victoria had the tree cut down in an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss his spirit. Later, it was claimed she herself materialised as a furious spirit, when at Wallis Simpson's request, Edward VIII sent workmen to cut down spruce trees Victoria and Albert had planted. Observers saw her racing across the park towards them, waving her arms and moaning in a way she would have considered thoroughly unseemly on the part of Herne. The moral of this story is not to cut down any of the park trees because generations of phantom gardeners take it personally.

Moving back to Herne, he was given new life as a pagan entity, not just through the work of various covens in the mid 20th century, but via a TV show called Robin of Sherwood, where Herne turned up now and then as a kind of oracle guide character. Beyond the Richard II connection, the idea of healing and accompanying taboo is very old, so there could be something in the folklore memory of a shaggy deer-skinned man with horns dancing round the oak tree.

Herne

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